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shameless pleading






I’ll sneeze when I’m dead.

Dear Word Detective: I am an exchange student, living in the US right now. I’m from Germany, and when I felt sick today, my host brother and I wondered whether there is a connection between “German” and “germs.” I know that the name “Germany” and all its other forms are very old and go back to Latin “Germania” or something. But does “germ” come from there? Are all German people “germian”? — Katharina Holst.

If by “germian” you mean “germy” in the sense of “carrying germs” or “infested with dangerous microbial organisms,” good heavens, no. You must be thinking of spinach. From what I’ve heard, Germany is one of the cleanest countries on earth, and most of the people of German descent I’ve known have been fastidiously neat and clean. Then again, I’m not sure that the current American craze for turning our homes (and hands) into germ-free zones with antimicrobial agents is such a good idea. The germs that eventually evolve to survive that stuff are going to be very hardy and in a very bad mood. I’d rather have the sniffles right now than face billions of tiny little ticked-off Rottweilers in a few years.

The root of “German” and “Germany” is the Latin “Germanus,” which was first (as far as we know) used in print by Julius Caesar for the peoples of central and northern Europe in his accounts of his conquests in the area. The root of “Germanus” is unknown, but it does not appear to have come from any Germanic language. One theory suggests that the word “German” was actually derived from a word in one of the languages of the neighboring Gauls, perhaps related to either the Old Irish “gair” (“neighbor”) or “gairim” (“to shout”).

The root of “germ,” on the other hand, is a different Latin word, “germen,” meaning the sprout or bud of a plant, which also gave us “germinate.” “Germ” first appeared in English in the 17th century with the sense of “sprout” or “seed.” A related Latin root, “germanus” (“akin” or “genuine”) gave us the modern English “germane,” in which the sense of “closely connected” was developed into its current meaning of “relevant.” Interestingly, the original form of “germane” in English was “german” (small “g”) which survives only in the fairly obscure forms “brother-german” and “sister-german,” meaning “full sibling.”

In any case, “germs” were good and positive things in English (a sense still found in “a germ of an idea” and “wheat germ”) until the 19th century, when the “germ theory of disease” took hold, leading to germicides, antibiotics and, recently, mass fear of shopping-cart handles.

8 comments to Germ

  • Karol Foster

    I do not get it at all and I read it all so why does the word germ get it from the country Germany is it because the had alot of disease and they called them germs??

    • Snehith

      The word germ did not come from Germany. He said Germany is very clean. Germ is another word for sproutling, bud of a plant. The current meaning for germ came from the germ theory of disease.

  • Frank

    Think about what Americans hated more than anything during WWII. “Germs” is a slang word for something else Americans still hate (microbes that do harm to your body) . I don’t think it’s too far fetched to make the connection there now.

  • andrea

    Read it again.

    Although the words ‘germ’ and ‘Germany’ sound and spelled similarly they have TWO DIFFERENT origins.

    It states that the word Germany was first used in print by Julius Ceasar to refer to people of central and northern Europe. One theory says “German” derived from a word neighboring Gauls languages, maybe related to Old Irish “gair” (“neighbor”) or “gairim” (“to shout”).

    The word “germ” however had LATIN origin – the word “germen” meaning the sprout or bud of a plant, i.e., “germinate”. Came into common use w/ respect to diseases from “germ theory” – that diseases ‘germinated’ from a small bud or seed.

  • Patrick Hand

    Great read and funny. My Dad who was born in 1912 told me that germs were good for you!!

  • asdf

    im guessing that fighting bacteria and viruses started being called “killing germs” more commonly around the late 30’s early 40’s…

  • Nick hulbert

    I always thought they were named germs after Germans because the first magnification device to become a microscope was made in in Holland in the late 1500’s at 270x power. Then the first electron microscope was invent by a German scientist in 1926. So I thought that Germans were the first to see microbes and thus the word germ caught on. But I learned something new here.

  • A germ-an

    It’s still possible that both are related. Germania was named by Iulius Caesar in de Bello Gallico, a Latin word that very well could have been chosen as a derogative. (As in those who sprout like crazy) at least he would have been aware of the similarity between his chosen word and the latin word for ‚sprout, seed‘

    Fun fact: A german was the first one to discover and describe the first proven germ. Thank you Robert Koch

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